How Far China's Nuclear Capabilities Stretch

Jan 26, 2017 | 18:56 GMT

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How Far China's Nuclear Capabilities Stretch

China has had a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States since the early 1980s, the Dongfeng-5, but it has issues that have recently limited its effectiveness as a deterrent. Its liquid fuel propellant means that it must undergo a lengthy fueling process before it can be launched, and its lack of mobility renders its silos vulnerable to strikes by increasingly accurate munitions. Those threats to its survivability reduce its value as a minimum credible deterrence. China needed to upgrade to a more survivable missile inventory given its historically smaller nuclear arsenal and no-first-use doctrine.

Development of the Dongfeng-41 — a solid-fuel nuclear-capable road-mobile system — is thought to have begun in the late 1980s, but the program was subject to multiple delays and pauses along the way. Other updates to China's strategic arsenal were introduced in the meantime. The medium-range Dongfeng-21 ballistic missile was deployed in 1991, followed by the intercontinental Dongfeng-31 missile in 2006. With those deployments, the Chinese replaced many of their older, less capable and immobile missiles with solid-fueled mobile systems. The Dongfeng-31 in particular gave China the capability to strike all of India or Russia, but China continued to rely on the aging Dongfeng-5 to underpin its nuclear deterrence posture against the United States. It was the only missile in the Chinese arsenal with the range to reach the U.S. mainland. This gap was ameliorated somewhat with the introduction of the extended-range Dongfeng-31A, but its payload was considered insufficient, so the capability gap remained.

Chinese media reported Jan. 24 on the possible deployment of long-range Dongfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in northeastern China close to Russia, triggering speculation in Russian media about China's intent. But since China has had the Dongfeng-31, a missile capable of reaching all of Russia, for more than a decade, Moscow does not consider the Dongfeng-41 to be an added threat. If anything, the recent deployment of the Dongfeng-41 near the Russian border actually increases the system's vulnerability to a Russian strike, including from conventional weapons. Instead, its deployment is influenced by geography. Given the distances involved and the ballistic missile trajectory from China to the United States, Heilongjiang province is the ideal location to maximize the missile's reach so it covers all of the continental United States. The Dongfeng-5 missiles have long been based in the same region for the same reasons.

China is in the middle of a campaign to expand both the scope and capabilities of its nuclear forces. But the nuances, deployments and developments of China's entire nuclear arsenal must be kept in perspective when evaluating the deployment of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is even more crucial to maintain a close watch on the effect Chinese nuclear weapons developments have on the rest of the world. Its evolving capabilities have the potential to increase competition with India, in turn affecting Pakistan's nuclear growth. They could also complicate arms control dynamics between the United States and Russia.